Book Review: Tennis and Philosophy


Baggett ATennis and Philosophy: W

hat the Racket Is All About

Edited by David Baggett

University Press of Kentucky

Perhaps because of its aristocratic origins, perhaps because of its country club image, perhaps because so many literary types slum as sportswriters, tennis has always had the aura of a thinking man’s game. This reputation has persisted despite the fact that pro tennis players generally have little formal education. By and large, the circuit is a sump of high school and junior high dropouts. Still, that hasn’t prevented high-minded authors from unspooling lyrical reams about the sport’s beauty, art and truth. The latest and most intellectually rigorous addition to the genre is Tennis and Philosophy, a compendium of essays assembled by David Baggett, a university professor and recreational player.

To start the discourse, Baggett has chosen to reprint David Foster Wallace‘s often quoted and justly praised “Federer As Religious Experience,” which sets a lofty bar for what follows. But Baggett’s authors are up for the challenge. If tennis is a game, how, they ask, should we define the word? Bernard Suits muses that a game is a “voluntary effort to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” To which Mark W. Foreman adds, “Rules not only make the game difficult, they make it possible.”

Where most people on the tour are can-do folks, the writers of Tennis and Philosophy are do-Kant scholars. In “You Cannot Be Serious: The Ethics of Rage in Tennis,” David Detmer deconstructs the behavior of John McEnroe, and with quotes from Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant he makes a case that Mac’s antics were more than a mere violation of etiquette. They were immoral acts that undermined his opponents, the pleasure of spectators and the aesthetics of the game.

Aesthetics also play a crucial role in Helen Ditouras‘ piece, “The Kournikova Phenomenon.” After wrestling with Plato’s definition of beauty, it presses on into ethical questions by contrasting the public’s fixation with Anna’s face and physique with its reaction to Serena Williams‘ much different look. Conclusion: latent, and sometimes blatant, racism skews perceptions of beauty.

Despite its unconventional approach to tennis, this book seems to draw its share of predictable conclusions. “Arthur Ashe: Philosopher in Motion” presents a historic, economic, genetic and psychological analysis of race, then recycles every flattering quote about Arthur, not to mention his own assessment of himself. The article would have been stronger had it examined with the same seriousness the legitimate opposition Ashe sparked during his career. After his tragic death Ashe attained iconic status, but what is his actual legacy? Worldwide the game remains predominantly white, elitist and antinomian. In his own words, Ashe wanted nothing to do with tennis if it legalized guarantees; he maintained they would lead to tanking, prize money splitting, betting and match fixing. Well, guarantees are now commonplace, and as for their consequences…they don’t come up in Tennis and Philosophy.

While the authors focus in the abstract on the subjects of virtue, truth and morality, they appear to have no interest in — perhaps they simply have limited knowledge of – the grittier realities of the game. The essay “Stabbing Seles” makes many astute points about the ethical responsibility of spectators and concludes that the mad Steffi Graf fan Gunther Parche not only injured Monica and violated every concept of fair play and “value-conferring competition.” He diminished Graf’s legacy. But for philosophical truth seekers surely Steffi did more damage to her legacy with her tax fraud case, which revealed that she hadn’t just violated laws. She had broken the rules of women’s tennis by taking over $10 million in guarantees.

This isn’t to impose extrinsic standards on Tennis and Philosophy and unjustly criticize it for what it doesn’t discuss. In the terms it sets for itself, the book can’t cherry-pick which information it chooses to subject to stringent examination and which it doesn’t. Nor should it accept at face value assertions that are unsupported by empirical data. In their exegesis of “Friendship, Rivalry and Excellence,” Baggett and Neil Delaney Jr. make many intriguing observations. But they often cite as evidence for their conclusions a series of unchallenged quotations from self-congratulatory ghosted memoirs and slick articles that are indistinguishable from PR. Do we have any reason except wishful thinking to accept that Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova “formed an authentic and lasting friendship that, in many ways, serves as a model worthy of emulation.” Perhaps “Bjorn Borg and Vitas Gerulaitas were dear friends,” as the authors claim. But the basis of that relationship, according to eyewitnesses, had more to do with Borg and Vitas’ penchant for partying, spiced with illegal substances, than it did with personal caring and an enjoyment in the “virtue of each’s own goodness.”

But hey, who’s to say who’s right? Let the debate continue and the brain games begin. And may the most logical, knowledgeable and ethical man or woman prevail.

— Michael Mewshaw